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Youth Allowance - Matter of Public Importance

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (5.07 pm) -

I rise to participate in this discussion on this matter of public importance, because it is an important discussion, about how we move forward in offering students the support that they desperately need. Only 12 months ago we were right here in this exact same place discussing and debating this issue.

It was 12 months ago that the Senate was deliberating the changes that were being put forward by the government, some of which were really good and some of which needed to happen. Other changes undercut and undermined the ability of students particularly from rural and regional areas to access the support they need to go to university. There was lots of toing and froing.

We had country students coming to parliament and speaking with their parliamentarians. We had Julia Gillard acknowledging that you could not pull the rug out from underneath current gap-year students and that it was a mistake. We finally had an agreement that accepted that scholarships not just for those students from rural and regional areas but for a whole range of students that were eligible for youth  allowance were needed to start the university year.

The debate dragged on right up until March this year. In March we saw a deal cut between the Labor government and the coalition to put in place the system that we are debating today. There are now lines on a map, which unfortunately means that no longer are there two classes of students who can get access to youth allowance to put themselves through university but there are now three categories: those who are in outer or inner regional areas, those who are not able to apply through either of those areas and those who are in the city.

Really what we need to be doing is acknowledging that youth allowance is there to support our young people to go to university to get the qualifications and skills they need to then go into the workforce and contribute to the productivity of our nation. It is not meant to be a 12-month, three-year or election-cycle vision.

This is meant to be about a vision for investing in the future productivity of our country. There is not going to be a quick fix to deal with this. We need to be realistic. If we want to invest in the productivity of our country, then we need to invest in our young people and that means true investment.

That means not thinking that a patch-up piece of legislation is simply going to deliver what is needed. It does not mean constant backflipping either from government or from opposition - if those parties have changed sides in the interim. It means an actual vision for investing in the education of our young people, not for the next three years but for the future.

We know that young people who have to move from home in order to go to university overwhelmingly come from country areas. They have to move. They do not have a university in the next suburb, the next couple of suburbs or a few tram stops away. They have to move out of home in order to go to university.

Often, in order to get the support that they need, they are forced to try to squeeze into the criteria that are set down by youth allowance. That means we are forcing young people to defer their studies, despite the fact that they have worked really hard in year 12 to get into the course of their dreams. To get that spot at university they have to defer it. They go off and they work, and they have to prove that they are worthy of that support.

That is what country students are doing daily. That is what the old system was and that is what the current system is for some of them.
Simply revisiting and reinstating the old rules does not deal with the inequities faced by students from country and regional areas. We know that, out of the students who defer their studies, 30 per cent will never go back.

That is quite a big chunk of students who have fought really hard, got into university and then deferred that spot. Thirty per cent of those students will never go back. A young woman who worked so hard to get into teaching, into nursing, into engineering or into a field that was desperately needed in her local country community could not get the support to get to university and so deferred her studies as a way to try and get through the criteria. Thirty per cent of students in her cohort will never go on to study at university.

We cannot afford to let that happen. Students who need to be supported should be supported. We need a new criterion that says that, if you have to move out of home in order to go to university - Senator Nash read out the exact quote that I had used and I stand by it - because there is no university in your country town, you should be recognised as being independent and you should get support.

That is what the government should be looking at rather than fiddling at the edges trying to make a system that clearly is not working - it was not working in the past and it is not working now - and rather than trying to come up with some convoluted solution that is just patchwork over patchwork, bandaid solution over bandaid solution.

The simplest solution would be to have one criterion: if you have to move out of home in order to go to university and you have to travel that far then you should get the support you need. That would be the simplest solution. The government should cost that. The Greens have asked Treasury to cost that proposal, and I look forward to the government's response to that.

I think it is good that Senator Nash has brought this on, because we have to have a discussion about the current inequities in the system. The minister has committed to examining whether the current Australian standard geographical classification, the lines on the map that are currently drawn, is appropriate. I say they re not appropriate. No lines on a map, in that sense, are going to be appropriate. We should not be forcing people to defer their studies, making them jump through hoops and over hurdles simply to get the support they need to go to university.

City students do not have to do that. City students do not have to defer their studies, put their entire academic career at risk and be part of the higher statistics for students who will never go on to study, will never finish their degree because they do not get support. City students do not have to face that. Why should we settle for less for those country kids, who are ultimately going to be the best people to bring those skills back to their communities?

Let us encourage and support our young people from country and rural areas to go to university. If they have got that spot, let us support them in doing it. Let us not put their families through the stress of having to defer studies and then not go to university simply because the government does not acknowledge that this is a problem.

Of course it is going to cost money, and the government is going to need to consider that. That is why the Greens have submitted their proposal to Treasury to look at that. I encourage the government and I look forward to the government's response on that. But simply putting in place a bandaid solution for the issue that is not going to be dealt with is not a solution.

We should not be forcing students to defer their studies just to get the support they need. City kids do not have to deal with that. If the National Party honestly believed that country students are no less important than city students, they would not continue to put a bar above them that their city cousins do not have. If the Nationals honestly support the idea that country students should have equal access to education, they should stop putting barriers in front of them and let us move forward to putting them on an equal footing.

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